Brian Viner: 'When one ferret was dropped, there was panic: "Get your bike clips on!"'

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The Independent Online

Ferret-racing was a new one on me until our friend Nancy invited us to The Pheasant, a pub near Upton upon Severn, the Friday before last. The place was packed out, as if for the ferret equivalent of the Grand National, and there was a fleeting panic when one of the little critters was dropped by his owner before the first race. "Get your bike clips on!" cried a fellow with immensely bushy eyebrows. Happily, the loose ferret was retrieved before I had to decide whether the bushy-eyebrowed man was joking.

There were four heats, with four ferrets contesting each heat, followed by two semi-finals and a final. Rather reminiscent of the Olympics, in that sense, if in no other. The idea was that each ferret was auctioned before the heats, so that you could own one for the evening. We paid £23 for a fine-looking specimen called Piglet, who was making his racing debut, although the master of ceremonies assured us that he had been trained intensively beside the hard shoulder of the M5.

My 10-year-old son Jacob had wanted us to bid for Tizzi, in lane three, but Jane and I reckoned that we had spotted Tizzi yawning, not an indication of a ferret primed for glory.

The heats started with all the ferrets being released into a long, drainpipe, with a saucer of something appetising at the other end, and some wire mesh in the middle so you could see how your ferret was faring at halfway stage. I should add that all the competitors seemed to be enjoying themselves at least as much as the assembled human beings were. I should also add that the old dictum about dog owners starting to look like their pets applies, in some instances, and mentioning no names, to ferret owners.

Anyway, almost inevitably, Piglet did about as badly in the drainpipe as a real piglet would have done, while Tizzi shot through in about five seconds flat. If I get to the Cheltenham Festival this year, I'll have to take Jacob with me. He has an unerring nose for a winner, because Tizzi cruised through the semi-final, beating Blodwyn, Snoozy and Sam, and then the final as well, securing £50 for his delighted owners. Apart from the prize money, and the winnings paid out by what was grandly called the tote, the proceeds of the evening went to the restoration of the lychgate at the local church. I don't know where the Archbishop of Canterbury stands on ferret-racing, but I'm sure he would have approved, had he been there. And now that I think about it, there was something vaguely familiar about the fellow with the bushy eyebrows.

My new book came out last week. It is a kind of memoir about growing up in front of the telly in the 1970s, and it has had a fair amount of publicity. Yesterday, I even got to chat about it on the BBC Breakfast sofa, having first been dusted with make-up, all of which made me feel cosmopolitan and a long way from home. But as I was leaving, the programme's editor came to tell me that she grew up not half a mile from where I now live in rural north Herefordshire, and she'd had a weekend job working for the people we bought our house from, cleaning their holiday cottages, two of which are now ours.

It was all very disorientating, and reminiscent of a literary-awards evening I attended in one of London's great function rooms, a year or two ago. I chatted to the rather beautiful woman next to me, who seemed so poised and such a socialite that I felt more than ever like the hick I have become. When she said that she grew up a long way west, I assumed that she meant Hammersmith, or possibly even Barnes, but it turned out to have been a tied cottage on the Welsh border.

As for my book, I was also a guest yesterday on the Steve Wright show on BBC Radio 2, and shared with him my favourite detail of all those I unearthed while researching 1970s telly, that there was a minor character in the notoriously racy drama, Bouquet of Barbed Wire, who was decidedly highly sexed, and that his name, in spookily close anticipation of tabloid fodder 30 years later, was Sven Erickson.